The UN called on all parties involved in the hostilities to commit to a zero-tolerance policy for sex crimes.
A Tigrayan media outlet has released an audio statement of what it said is Debretsion Gebremichael, the removed leader of Ethiopia’s conflict-hit region, in which he issues a fresh call to arms.
The authenticity of the recording attributed to Debretsion could not be independently verified.
The statement, which would be his first public statement in nearly two months, was aired on Facebook on Saturday via the United States-based Tigrai Media House, a media outlet affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
In November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations targeting leaders of the TPLF, the regional governing party, a move he said came in response to TPLF-orchestrated attacks on federal army camps.
Abiy, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, declared victory in late November when federal forces took the regional capital, Mekelle, but reports of low-level fighting have continued and TPLF leader Debretsion has remained on the run.
“They [the federal government] have temporary military dominance,” said the recording, alleging abuses such as rape and looting, reports of which have also been highlighted by the United Nations.
“We are engaged in extended resistance.”
In the audio, Debretsion purportedly said: “The cities and rural areas of Tigray are being bombarded day and night by heavy artilleries.
“I call upon you, wherever you are … to organise and fight and to strive to make all who have reached fighting age take up the fight, and through this to shorten the lifespan of the enemy.”
It was not clear when or where the recording was made.
But Kjetil Tronvoll, an expert on the TPLF with contacts deep within the party, said he believed the recording was genuine.
“Though I have not spoken to [Debretsion] personally, he has spoken to other contacts of mine in recent days,” Tronvoll, of Bjorknes University College in Norway, told the AFP news agency.
Asked to comment, Billene Seyoum, spokeswoman for Abiy, said: I “cannot to speak to the delusions of a criminal clique’s Facebook page.”
The TPLF and foreign backers have sought to divert attention with unfounded genocide claims since November to cover up their own “horrendous crimes”, she told the Reuters news agency, urging foreign nations and media to expose them.
Since fighting began, thousands of people have died and hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine across the region of more than five million people.
A Mekelle-based regional caretaker administration claims life is returning to normal and Abiy’s government says it is sending aid.
Yet aid workers and some officials in Tigray have warned of a humanitarian disaster marked by widespread starvation.
Reports from all sides are difficult to verify since the government has largely sealed off Tigray from media and foreign aid workers. Telecommunications to many areas are not working.
The recording called on Tigrayans abroad to contribute time and money to support the fighters and foreign nations to condemn the Ethiopian government, saying Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki should be charged in an international court.
Dozens of witnesses have said Eritrean troops are present in Tigray to support Ethiopian forces, though both nations deny that.
Meanwhile, the government-affiliated Fana broadcaster reported the authorities were establishing a task force to investigate heightened concern over violence against women in Tigray.
Minister of Women, Children and Youth Filsan Abdullahi was quoted as saying the government had a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of sexual violence.